Sentence tossed after judge swore, showed man ‘animosity’

For the second time in a year, Judge Joe Wilson’s salty language led to questions over his conduct.

Snohomish County Superior Court Judge Joe Wilson

Snohomish County Superior Court Judge Joe Wilson

EVERETT — A Sultan man must be sentenced again because a Snohomish County Superior Court judge cursed at him, told him he was “just a criminal” and directed “personal animosity” at him, the state Court of Appeals ruled.

It’s the second time in a year that Judge Joe Wilson’s salty language on the bench has led to questions about his conduct.

Wilson was admonished by a state watchdog agency in 2018, for silencing another defendant and calling him an animal at a sentencing hearing.

In the Sultan man’s case, the Court of Appeals documented months of “epithets and slurs (that) are manifestations of bias or prejudice.”

Those comments were made in the context of drug court, where the tone is different from a regular courtroom, said the public defender who filed the appeal, Robert O’Neal.

“I think it’s important to understand that,” O’Neal said in an interview Monday. “Knowing Judge Wilson as a whole person, in court, I am not outraged. … He should not be judged by this one case.”

Wilson has a long record of advocacy for people with addiction. In his five years leading the drug court program, he shepherded over 150 people to graduation. The judge, who is elected, did not respond to repeated requests for comment for this story.

Drug court gives nonviolent addicts a second chance to stay out of jail and avoid felony convictions, if they get treatment and stay sober. The judge gets to know each person and questions them directly about their progress. If the defendants fail drug tests or miss hearings, the judge can send them to jail.

The Sultan defendant, 46, was arrested at a Walmart in 2015. He has a felony history of burglary, having stolen property and forging prescriptions that began in the 1990s. This time he had been caught with $432 in stolen goods along with a magnetic key for defeating security tags and about 8 grams of meth, according to charging documents.

The man enrolled in drug court in January 2017, signing an agreement that said if he failed to follow through, he could be sentenced to two years in prison.

Within weeks, he tested positive for drugs and made excuses for missing treatment, according to the Court of Appeals ruling. The judge was not persuaded. The man told Wilson at a hearing on Feb. 24, 2017, that his shoulder was sore from work crew.

“Stop with the shoulder (B.S.) now,” Wilson said.

The man admitted he’d been drinking lately, and told the judge he needed anger management. The judge used the F-word at least twice at the hearing.

“I think you’re a (expletive) addict and maybe you need treatment,” Wilson told him. “I don’t think it’s got nothing to do with anger management. You think I’ll give you anger management and that’s going to get you clean and sober? … What the hell are you talking about?”

The judge added that, “You can’t even give me a clean date you’re so (expletive) up.”

The defendant missed a court date. Wilson issued a $100,000 warrant for his arrest. At a hearing on March 15, the judge asked the man if he was on oxycodone. He replied, “Yeah.” Wilson flunked him out of the program. Two days later, at another hearing, the judge noted the original charges were related to shoplifting.

“So not only is he an addict, he’s also a liar and a thief,” Wilson said. “Done.”

At sentencing, Wilson looked over the man’s long record of crimes dating to the age of 14.

“You, sir, are just a criminal,” Wilson said. “That’s all you are, you’re just a criminal. Do you have issues? Yep, you do. Are you going to deal with them? No, you’re not. … You, the odds say, are going to die in prison.”

The Court of Appeals found the judge crossed a line.

“The judge’s manifestation of personal animosity toward (the defendant) is not something we can write off as a byproduct of the informal and confrontational culture of drug court,” wrote the three-judge panel.

The appellate court ordered the man to be re-sentenced by another judge. That appears to be a formality, because he has already served his prison time. Wilson had denied a motion that would have let the man out of jail while the case was appealed. The defendant remains under corrections supervision.

In a feature story about drug court in The Daily Herald last summer, Wilson spoke about how frankness and honesty are a two-way street.

“If you don’t have (honesty), the addicts will eat you alive,” Wilson said. “They know dishonesty and lack of integrity. They’re the kings of it.”

Judges often rotate assignments, and Wilson no longer presides over the drug court.

Caleb Hutton: 425-339-3454; Twitter: @snocaleb.

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